Friday, March 02, 2007

Some stories that caught our interest this past week...

Building a Blue Brain:

A network of artificial nerves is growing in a Swiss supercomputer -- meant to simulate a natural brain, cell-for-cell. The researchers at work on "Blue Brain" in Lausanne, Switzerland (hmmm, sounds like the plot to "The Footprints of God"-- promise new insights into the sources of human consciousness.

The machine is beautiful as it wakes up -- nerve cells flicker on the screen in soft pastel tones, electrical charges flash through a maze of synapses. The brain, just after being switched on, seems a little sleepy, but gentle bursts of current bring it fully to life.

This unprecedented piece of hardware consists of about 10,000 computer chips that act like real nerve cells. To simulate a natural brain, part of the cerebral cortex of young rats was painstakingly replicated in the computer, cell by cell, together with the branched tree-like structure of the synapses.

To read on, click here.

Down the Rabbit Hole: Living A Virtual Life On The Internet

On the Internet, there is a virtual world called Second Life. It's not a game: no one wins, loses or dies. It's not a show: nothing happens here unless you make it happen.
Second Life is all about wish fulfillment. You're represented by a computer-generated character. You can make it walk around. You can fly. You can exchange typed comments with other people's characters. You can make yourself young and beautiful. You can even make the sun set on command. (One of the more interesting ethical questions this poses is if you do a social experiment online, do you need to run it through an IRB and get the informed consent of the participants?)

To read on, click here.

Politics Play a Role in Disease Research

The television spot shows a 40-year-old woman, in slow motion, as her family and co-workers rush by over the course of a day. It ends with her sitting alone, amid the remnants of a birthday party.

"The worst part isn't even that everyone thinks the problem's in my head," a female voice intones. "The worst part of chronic fatigue syndrome is missing my life."

The spot is the centerpiece of a remarkable $4.5 million public awareness campaign bankrolled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's remarkable, in part, because of the role advocacy and politics played in creating it.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is not contagious or life-threatening, and medical skeptics continue to question its merits as a focus for public health. But the money is being spent, in part, thanks to strategic lobbying and congressional interest.

To read on, click here.

Indian Government To Open Orphanages for Female Infants To Reduce Sex-Selective Abortion, Official Says

In Medical News Today, The Indian government plans to set up orphanages in each regional district for female infants in an effort to curb sex-selective abortions, Renuka Chowdhury, minister of women and child development, said, the PTI/Hindustan Times reports (PTI/Hindustan Times, 2/18). India in 1994 approved the Prenatal Determination Act, which bans the use of technologies such as ultrasounds and sonograms for the purpose of sex-selective abortion. The law also bans advertisements for prenatal sex determination, as well as the practice of preconception sex selection law. According to a UNICEF report released in December 2006, about 7,000 fewer girls than expected are born daily in India, and about 10 million fewer girls than expected were born in the past 20 years.

To read on, click here.

It Seems the Fertility Clock Ticks for Men, Too

When it comes to fertility and the prospect of having normal babies, it has always been assumed that men have no biological clock — that unlike women, they can have it all, at any age.

But mounting evidence is raising questions about that assumption, suggesting that as men get older, they face an increased risk of fathering children with abnormalities. Several recent studies are starting to persuade many doctors that men should not be too cavalier about postponing marriage and children.

Until now, the problems known to occur more often with advanced paternal age were so rare they received scant public attention. The newer studies were alarming because they found higher rates of more common conditions — including autism and schizophrenia — in offspring born to men in their middle and late 40s. A number of studies also suggest that male fertility may diminish with age.

To read on, click here.

Premature baby who had record survival may change view of unborn, specialists say

The birth and record survival of a baby less than 22 weeks gestation could have, and should have, an impact on the perception and treatment of unborn human beings, pro-life bioethics
commentators say.

Amillia Sonja Taylor, born at 21 weeks and six days, went home Feb. 21 weighing four pounds after a nearly four-month stay at Baptist Children’s Hospital in Miami, Fla. When she was born
Oct. 24, she weighed less than 10 ounces and was only 9 1/2 inches long.

She is the first baby known to have survived after less than 23 weeks gestation, according to the hospital. Infants who go to full term are born between 37 and 40 weeks. The hospital reported the death rate for babies born at 23 weeks is 70 percent, according to the American
Association of Pediatrics.

Amillia’s miraculous survival could affect public policy, said Southern Baptist physician Don Buckley. To read on, click here.

Panel Finds Flawed Data in a Major Stem Cell Report

An inquiry panel has found what it called “significantly flawed” data in a major stem cell paper published in Nature in 2002.

The article, which claimed stem cells isolated from an adult could change into all the major tissue types of the body, was seized on by opponents of abortion as showing that embryonic stem cell research was unnecessary since adult stem cells could provide all the predicted benefits.

An expert panel convened by the university concluded that a process used to identify the cells was "significantly flawed, and that the interpretations based on these data, expressed in the manuscript, are potentially incorrect."

Verfaillie, who has an international reputation in stem cell research, called the problem "an honest mistake" and said it did not affect the study's conclusions about the potential of adult stem cells.

But the disclosure comes at a time of growing skepticism in the scientific community about the power of this kind of adult stem cell, in part because others have had only limited success replicating her study.

Political ramifications

Verfaillie's research was heralded by social conservatives who have pinned their hopes on adult stem cells as an alternative to using embryonic cells, which they oppose on moral grounds.

At the same time, Verfaillie's work had cemented the reputation of the University of Minnesota as a major force in the world of stem cell research.

To read on, click here or here.


Anonymous said...

There is a great deal of research showing that advanced paternal age (35 and above) increases the risk to offspring of numerous genetic diseases. To pick the ages of the mid to late 40s shows a bias not warranted by the body of research on paternal age. There were quite a few fertility professionals quoted in Roni Rabin's article.

To quote an article published in 2002 in Science Daily:

"It makes sense that the mutations causing these diseases would occur more frequently in older men, and indeed that's what we saw for Apert syndrome," says Ethylin Jabs, M.D., director of the Center for Craniofacial Development and Disorders at Johns Hopkins.

Importantly, disorders linked to advancing paternal age begin to increase rapidly at about the same time as maternal risks increase -- age 33 to 35."

In a paper titled "The Age of the Father and the Health of Future Generations", psychiatrist Leslie B. Raschka wrote:

"All genetic illnesses have their origin in a distant or recent mutation. Paternal age is an important determinant of mutation frequency in new germ cell mutation, causing both autosomal dominant and X-linked recessive illnesses. The role of other mutagenic factors is not the subject of this study. The results of my own research are supported by other information which indicates that the leading cause of genetic illness present in human populations is the ageing process in the male. Conceiving children by men younger than 35 years of age would prevent many genetic illnesses in future generations." This paper was published in the obscure Chinese Medical Journal around 2001. It is not in Pub Med.

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concerned heart said...

A brand new study from Finland in which 900 kids in special ed were compared to 301 of their mainstreamed peers. A father 40 and over was one of the two risk factors found. The other was lower socio economic status especially in the familial forms of LD.

So the major statistically significant risk factor for non-familal neurological impairment was paternal age 40 or above.